Notes from the Liberal Arts International Conference 2019

The following are my notes from the sessions I attended at the Liberal Arts International Conference 2019: “Liberal Arts in the Global Age: Changing Winds and Shifting Sands” hosted by Texas A&M University Qatar (TAMUQ). (Photos of TAMUQ are from the KEO website.)
Day 1 – Saturday, March 23
7:50am I arrived at Education City and spent some time driving around, trying to locate the TAMUQ building. I had an inkling where it was but wanted to test my suspicion. I half-remembered correctly—on to the second challenge: trying to locate a parking spot. The Torba Farmer’s Market and the Qatar International Food Festival were taking place on the campus, so some of the roads were walled off with temporary barricades. Eventually, I made my way to a parking lot proximate to TAMUQ.
Registration and opening remarks were in the Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) Student Center, a building that was across the street from the TAMUQ main building. The HBKU Student Center was modern with hints of Arabic design. Throughout the building, there was red granite and wood accents. After exploring what was open, I spent my time in Flat White Specialty Coffee Shop and ordered an Americano with an avocado, sweet potato, egg wrap.
9:06am “Salam alakum! And howdy!” The opening remarks from the conference chair. He provided a little backstory about the LAIC. This was the 7thannual conference since 2013. Then he commented on this year’s conference theme: “Liberal Arts in the Global Age: Changing Winds and Shifting Sands.” He added that identity is “claimed” and “assigned,” which he alleged was emphasized in the Liberal Arts.
9:14am A few words by the Dean of TAMUQ. “Howdy!” (I noticed that the dean had a Spanish accent. Also, behind the speaker podium, I spotted the flag of the US and Qatar.) He remarked that TAMUQ is the second branch campus of Texas A&M University (TAMU). The only other branch was in Galveston, TX. TAMUQ was home to the Engineering program at Education City, and an Engineering degree at TAMUQ was the same as a degree from TAMU. So, why were the Liberal Arts so important to future Engineers? The dean noted that Liberal Arts studies provided the TAMUQ Engineers with what employers once referred to as “soft skills,” later as “professional skills,” and more recently as “translational skills.”
9:21am The Program Chair arrived slightly late. She made some remarks and noted that “globalization, localization, and equalization” were some themes that would appear throughout the conference. She then added a quote that she attributed to Mark Zuckerberg: “Facebook is as much psychology and sociology as it is about technology.” This statement seemed to serve as a tacit argument for the need of Liberal Arts despite the impact and successes of STEM contributions.
Keynote “Crises in the Gulf: Causes and Future Prospects”
9:29am The keynote speaker Dr. Ghanim Almajjar from Kuwait University began his talk entitled “Crises in the Gulf: Causes and Future Prospects.” He opened by mentioning the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque massacre and drew parallels of the shooter’s identity politics with the perpetuator of a similar massacre in Oslo, Norway.
Almajjar then said, “Politics don’t give you answer,” remarking about the shift in US international positions during the Trump presidency and UK Brexit debacle. “There is an English saying,” he quipped, “‘Clear as a mud.’” He then pointed out that despite national borders and presumed national identities, there are often a myriad of separate identities struggling within such constructs (e.g., Catalonian, Flemish, and Basque ethnics groups).
His talk then redirected to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which formed in 1981; a fairly recent regional intergovernmental union that has been tested by a number of internal crises since its inception. The speaker said that he was a GCC skeptic despite enjoying some perks like being able to use his Kuwait civil ID, instead of a passport, to cross the borders of the GCC member nations.
While the current blockade is the Gulf crisis on most people’s mind, he mentioned other crises in past that did not attract international attention. For one, in 1991 Qatar and Bahrain had a dispute over the contested Hawar Islands, which was resolved externally by the UN. Then later, in 1992, there was a border dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia resulting in three deaths. And in 1996, there was an attempted coup of the Qatar leadership, purportedly organized by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain.
So, is GCC a good unit of analysis? Despite neighboring one another, the countries in many ways are quite dissimilar. Bahrain is one of the oldest countries of the GCC. Kuwait is one of the relatively most liberal in term of people speaking their mind. Oman is the only former empire. The speaker then noted that Qatar was similar to Kuwait in terms of its liberalization. Saudi Arabia is the largest most powerful of the countries due to it being the religious center of Islam and extremely oil rich. The UAE is the only federation, with Abu Dhabi and Dubai competing against one another for control until 2008 financial crisis made Abu Dhabi the real power in the UAE.
The speaker then turned his attention to why there have been crises in the Gulf, noting several factors:
1.    The quarrelling states are rich; Qatar, Saudi, and UAE don’t economically need each other.
2.    The centralized and personalized forms of governance (autocratic monarchies) means that many crises, including the current one, is driven by personality of the family and individual in power.
3.    There is minimum inter-trade between GCC countries (approximately 20% GCC trade while 80% with the outside world).
4.    There is also no security regime. Most of the security in the GCC guaranteed by the outside world.
5.    There are different threat perceptions amongst GCC countries. Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. Conflict in Yemen bleeds over to Oman. And, while Qatar was favorable towards the Arab Spring, other countries were mortified by the revolution.
6.    Finally, amongst the GCC countries there are conflicting projects. Qatar invested in pan-Arab media (Al Jazeera), pursued sports (World Cup 2022), and hosts foreign military bases (top American base in region). The UAE began filling the gap of security and pursued militarization cultivating the moniker, “Little Sparta.” Finally, Saudi under its new prince has pursued a number of projects, some which have stalled as the country tries to do damage control because of the Jamal Khashoggi murder.
The speaker was not optimistic of a quick resolution to the current Gulf Crisis, noting that the Emir of Kuwait has tried to resolve issues employing the old style, but the principal actors are of a younger generation. For now, there is no hope because much of the conflict is predicated on the personalities of its actors.
Panel 1: (De)Constructing Online Identities: Perspectives, Themes and Challenges
“Identity Online: A multi-disciplinary pragmatic account” by Francisco Yus – Yus posited the old chestnut that Identity is constructed, introduced me to an interesting portmanteau extimacy (externalization of intimate details), and shared his handout on cyberpragmatic research.
“Paradigm Shift: Techno-Discursive Design and Digital Meaning-Making” by Majid KhosraviNik – KhosraviNik noted that “Visuality might change our idea of rationality” and that “Algorithms as the new masters of discursive control, manipulation and power.” He argued that digital populism is enabled by algorithms because “Algorithms produce and channelize products to increase consumption” thus “produc[ing] Fake News by design.” Persuasion is now via affect instead of argumentative consent making. Thus, he propounds for more techno-discursive analysis, looking at how technology mediates current discourse.
“Digital Discourse of religion and identity among Muslim diaspora in the UK” by Soudeh Ghaffari – Gharfari looked at traditional vs. contemporary changes and adaptions in new media of Muharram Commemorations, annual public display of mass mourning for the death of the third Shi’a Imam. Traditional Muharram Commemoration is an Iranian state-supported Eulogy (see Best Irani Noha). However, a post-Iranian revolution generation influenced by rap and hip hop began changing Muharram Commemorations (see “Agha Joon” Tohi). This was at first accepted but later banned by the Iranian state. Performers were driven underground and out-of-country. But these artists are able to share their performances via Twitter and Instagram (user-controlled channels) instead of state-controlled channels. Gharfari analyzed the acceptance of that artist Tohi and discovered more support for Tohi from diasporic Iranian Muslims who see him as a better representation of “devout” or “spiritual” than performers or performances more in line with the Iranian Revolution State.
“Terrorism in Cyberspace: Mediatized Discourse” by Ryszard Machnikowski and Monika Kopytowska – Machnikowski discussed the intersections of terrorism (“asymmetric, political warfare driven by extremist views”). He shared a recent quote by Jason Burke, “Technology is terrorism’s most effective ally,” commenting on the recent Christchurch massacre. Machnikowski continued that “Terrorism is also an act of social communication. Propaganda by deeds” and that “Media, both public and social, are necessary part of terrorist process.” The internet is a site of both terrorist and counter-terrorist as how-to-build-a-bomb websites are produced by terrorists and counter-terrorists, the latter may result in defective or instantly exploding bombs(!). The fourth phase of Jihadism of the late 2000s employed social media platforms, and the Islamic State (IS) are/were masters of social media. Next, Koptowska shared a Media Proximization Approach which notes how media reduces mental distance between audience and event (objective and subjective reality). Proximization is heightened in cyberspace and “new media brings with it new ideas and possibilities of identity construction, and also new possibilities of spreading both ideologies and fears” that are “trans-spatial and trans-temporal.”
Day 2 – Sunday, March 24
9:10am Before the conference, I had to stop by Qatar University to print out materials for the instructors who would be covering my afternoon classes so that I could attend today’s conference sessions and present my poster. Because of my lateness, I chose not to attend the day’s keynote address. Instead, I grabbed a complimentary cup of coffee and located the room of the first session that I would be attending.
Paper Presentation: “Teaching analytical argumentative writing across the disciplines” 
Michael Maune detailed how he and his colleagues (all Applied Linguists) were helping students develop their analytical argumentative writing abilities for the Information Systems program at Carnegie Mellon Qatar. He presented three challenges to the improvement of student writing: students struggle with analytical writing; assignments don’t always make expectations clear; and faculty lack explicit awareness of linguistic demands of disciplinary writing. Maune shared a number of well-designed materials.
Panel 7: “English as a Medium of Instruction and Internalization: Issues, Challenges, and Possibilities”
“Pedagogical and Assessment Practices in EMI” by Zohreh Eslami and Keith Graham – Graham provided the starting point for the panel presentation focused on EMI, or English as a Medium of Instructions, which can be understood as “using English to teach academic subject (other than English) in a country where English is not the primary language.  Often in EMI, there are no explicit English language-related learning outcomes.” Graham presented a second notable portmanteau of the conference “glocalized,” which combines global with local. (He also shared a chart of Bloom’s taxonomy that featured assessment types.
“Assessing Content Teachers’ Language Proficiency for English Medium Instruction” by Slobodanka Dimova – Dimova discussed at her university in Copenhagen, the local language (Danish) is used during undergraduate studies but a global language (English) is used for graduate studies. However, because her university feels compelled to internationalize its faculty and student body, English usage is intruding more and more into undergraduate studies. There are several consequences of this internationalization:
·     Teaching and learning is conducted in an L2.
·     New content and language must now be integrated.
·     Teachers become resistant to the internationalization push because it threatens their identity.
·     A power imbalance arises in the workplace because professors are suddenly not competent due to linguistic abilities.
·     There is now the need to implement of language tests for lecturers.
However, the presenter noted that “internationalization and EMI are not necessarily the same.”
“Transnational Alignment of English Competences for University Lecturers (TAEC)” by Joyce Kling; and “Qualifying Parallel Language Policy: More Languages for More Students” by Sanne Larsen – Kling and Larsen discussed the development of language tests for lecturers and the need for more languages for students in internationalized learning environments.

Poster Sessions
During this time, I presented my poster to a small but receptive audience.
Paper Presentation: “A Foreign Generation: How to Speak Their Language”
Turkan Aydin discussed the challenges facing instructors when working with new generations (Gen Y, Gen Z, and soon Gen Alpha). However, instead of just dismissing students from these generations as lazy and entitled, she suggested several questions with proposed strategies.
1.    How is your relationship with your students, really? Try 2-minute strategy: two minutes per day casually chatting to get to know them and be excited, genuine about what they have to say.
2.    Is there a sense of community in your class? Try icebreakers/warm up activities which she said have become the most important part of her lesson plan. Allow students to work together. Move them around, make them get to know others. Address the with their class name!!!
3.    Are you students provided with Dopamine? If not, get them involved; give small tasks; recognize their contributions; praise them.
4.    Are there any connections to real life? Teachers need to justify why students are in your class/ why they are working on a certain task. Show the impact / have them produce things and share with public. Have them organize events, workshops, videos, community service projects, etc. Make them meet professional in the field. Lead them to job fairs/seminars
5.    How much choice do your students have? Give them agency in seating/grouping, input mode/ output mode, timing/ order, and topics/ activities.
6.    Are students aware of their potential? Encourage self-reflection through checklists, exit slips, reflection letters. Make them realize their strengths and weaknesses.
Finally, she said that instructors need to realize, “I am different. They [students] are different. I need to approach this differently.”

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